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Design Manual: Retention Basin

Karen Setty, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California,
Santa Barbara

Description: Retention basins are a best management practice intended to mitigate storm
water runoff. Essentially, water is detained in the basin while pollutants are treated by natural
processes and water exits the basin slowly over time, or during the next storm. Processes such
as mechanical settling of suspended sediments and biological processing of nutrients contribute
to improved water quality.

Wet Basins

Purpose: Reduce volume of storm water, treat water through mechanical settling of suspended
sediment, removal of metals, organic compounds, oil and grease, and biological processing of
nutrients. Additional uses include removal of trash, groundwater recharge, recreation, or water

Dry Basin

Diagram of a Typical Retention Basin

Settling Basin Aquatic plant

(Forebay) shelf
Top View
Overflow Outlet
Length~45m Trickle Ditch
Inlet Outlet
Width~10m Depth~1-2.5m
Riser Pipe

Flow Direction

Total Depth
Side View

Low Flow Ditch

Ideal Location: Since the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas is initiating a stormwater treatment
system, retention basins would be useful for rivers located upstream of the city. Because loss of
forest in the surrounding sub-watersheds has increased stormwater runoff, retention basins
would prevent large surges of stormwater from entering the city, and reduce overall loading on a
municipal waste water treatment plant. Basins should be built at least 3 meters (10 ft) from the
nearest basement wall, and at least 30 meters (100 feet) from the nearest water supply well.
The total area for the estimated dimensions above is 950 m2 with maintenance access.

Cost and Materials: The main costs for site excavation are labor and equipment rental.
Depending on the type of basin desired, additional materials that may be needed include a
polyethylene liner, outlet riser pipe, flood stage outlet, trash rack, cement trickle channel, or side
slope stabilization materials. Construction costs are highly site specific, depending on
topography, soils, subsurface conditions, the local labor rate, and other considerations. The
annual cost of routine maintenance (especially sediment and vegetation removal) has been
estimated at 3-5% of construction costs, and systems normally last longer than 20 years without
major reconstruction.

Steps for Construction

1. Consider primary goals and how they will affect design

NOTE: Some needs may conflict.
a. Nutrient/Pollutant Removal – A detention basin with a permanent pool of water will
effectively remove nutrients in addition to other pollutants. A dry detention basin is not
effective at removing pollutants, and pollutants that may settle in the basin will be
"picked up" by future floods. (A permanent pool will depend on availability of rainfall
throughout the year and the existence of a liner.)
b. Water supply – The basin should have a permanent pool and be physically accessible to
users. A sediment forebay (a shallow depression at the inlet of the basin that captures
large sediment particles) will help to pre-treat the water. Regular water quality testing
should be done to assess designated uses.
c. Groundwater recharge – The basin should not have a liner.
d. Trash removal – A trash grate should be installed on the inlet and/or outlet of the basin.
Regular trash removal will be required.

2. Design considerations
a. Basins can either be dug out of the ground, or an embankment can be built up to
enclose a low-lying area. The embankment must be substantial enough to withstand
flood events.
b. Shape: A length-to-width ratio of 2:1 or greater and a level bottom surface allow
directional flow, maximize treatment time, and prevent the formation of stagnant areas
which breed mosquitoes. Oblong structures with the inlet and outlet at opposite ends are
generally best, although an elongated triangular shape with the inlet at its apex can be
used as well (see example).

Triangular-Shaped Wet Retention Basin

Trash Rack
Aquatic Plant
Settling Basin Shelf
(Forebay) Riser Pipe

Inlet Permanent
Pool Outlet

Access Shallow Slope

Overflow Outlet

c. Retention Time: The optimal removal of nutrients occurs with a retention time of 2-3
weeks for pools with 1-2 meter depth. In other words, one water drop on average should
spend 2-3 weeks in the retention basin. A shorter amount of time will lead to insufficient
natural processing of nutrients; while after a longer time, the basin can thermally stratify.
The retention time can be calculated by:
T = VB/nVR
T is retention time, VB is the volume of the basin (volume = area x depth), n is the
number of runoff events in a given period (i.e. one year), and VR is the volume of runoff
in an average rain event for that period.
d. Depth: Depth should be shallow enough to maintain aerobic conditions by avoiding
thermal stratification, yet deep enough to minimize algal blooms and the re-suspension
of settled sediments from surface wind disturbances. Recommended optimal depth for
maximizing biological water treatment is between 1-2.5 meters. Depths of 2-2.5 meters
will prevent sunlight from penetrating the bottom of the pool, which prevents overgrowth
of permanent aquatic vegetation into the designated open water area.
e. Aquatic Shelf: Surrounding the open water area, a shelf about 3 meters wide and 1/3
meter deep can be built to promote native wetland vegetation around the perimeter.
Vegetation will reduce erosion and enhance nutrient uptake. The total area of the
aquatic shelf should be no more than 25-50% of the permanent pool area.
f. Trickle Ditch: This structure channels water from the inlet to the outlet even during low
flow, to prevent stagnation. During rain events, the water would simply overflow the
channel and go into the rest of the basin. A concrete-lined channel is suggested for easy
maintenance and self-cleansing.

g. Inlet: A shallow depression near the inlet concentrates the majority of sediment
deposition in a smaller, more easily accessible area for removal. Many pollutants are
attached to suspended solids, so this structure facilitates a simple primary treatment of

storm water. The inlet structure should be able to dissipate flow energy and prevent
erosion, and may incorporate vegetation, cement, or rock.
h. Outlet: A riser pipe at the outlet will draw out the cooler bottom water for discharge, to
avoid thermal impacts on receiving surface waters. For a wet basin, flow through the
pipe is driven by the natural water pressure. In addition, an overflow outlet structure at a
higher stage should be installed to release water during large storm events, and prevent
overtopping of the embankment. Release rate should be consistent with the original
natural stream flow at that site. Changing the size of the opening is the easiest way to
decrease flow rate.

Outlet of a Retention Basin Trash Rack

3. Sizing
a. First, the desired hydraulic retention time (T) should be determined:
- A larger basin will generally provide better pollutant removal, but larger basins
cost more to construct.
- To allow a retention time of 2-3 weeks, as suggested, the volume of the basin
should be about 3-4 times the volume of runoff from a typical rainfall event.
b. Method 1: Estimate the area of land that will drain to the basin and calculate volume to
hold half an inch of runoff for each acre.
c. Method 2: Calculate volume needed to store runoff from a 2-year storm event.
d. After determining volume in m3, divide by 2m (depth) to obtain surface area of open
water, and divide again by 10m (width) to obtain the length.

4. Potential Problems and Solutions:
Problem: Solution:
Human safety Build side slopes no steeper than 4:1 (vertical to
horizontal distance) to prevent accidents
Mosquito breeding Eliminate stagnant areas with a low flow ditch and
a level bottom surface
Embankment overtopping An engineer should be consulted when
constructing an embankment, to ensure that it will
withstand pressure from a full volume of water in
the basin.
Seepage to groundwater If water quality in the basin is a concern, use a liner
to prevent seepage to underlying aquifers
Sediment/Trash Build-up To promote more frequent maintenance, site basin
in an accessible and highly visible area. Hire
laborers or commit volunteers to a regular

5. Steps for Construction

a. Locate a site and determine an appropriate design given the goals of the project.
b. Make a blueprint including calculation of volume, width, depth, length, outflow rate,
maximum pressure from full water volume, retention time, surface area of open pond
and area of aquatic shelf.
c. Excavate area and build embankment.
d. (Optional) Lay down liner and cover with a thin layer of clay or soil.
e. Construct outlet and inlet; install trash grates if desired.
f. (Optional) Seed aquatic shelf with native, noninvasive wetland plants.

6. Sample Maintenance Schedule
Activity: Inspection Suggested Frequency:
Inspect to ensure bank stability, sufficient vegetation growth and expected After the first three post-
drainage construction storm events
Inspect for invasive vegetation, trash and debris, clogging of inlet/outlet Twice a year and after large
structures, excessive erosion, sediment buildup in basin or outlet, storm events
cracking or settling of the dam, bank stability, tree growth on dam or
embankment, vigor and density of the grass turf on the basin side slopes
and floor, differential settlement, leakage, subsidence, damage to the
emergency spillway, mechanical component condition, graffiti, excessive
growth, signs of pollution such as oil sheens, discolored water, or
unpleasant odors, and
signs of flooding.
Inspect stream conditions above and below the basin. Once a year
Remove sediment from outlet structure, remove trash and debris, repair Twice a year
eroded areas
Mow side slopes or re-seed if needed to maintain vegetation; remove Once a year
vegetation from bottom of wet pond area
Remove sediment from the forebay and re-grade when the accumulated Every five years
sediment volume exceeds 10-20% of the forebay volume. Clean in early
spring so vegetation damaged during cleaning has time to re-establish.
Remove sediment if a) the permanent pool volume is reduced significantly Every five years or
(sediment accumulation exceeds 25% of depth), b) if resuspension of as needed
sediment is observed, or c) the pond becomes eutrophic (signaled by high
nitrogen and phosphorus levels, low dissolved oxygen and excessive
algal growth).

7. Cost Worksheet
Item Actual Cost
Excavation (earth-moving) Equipment Rental
Polyethylene liner (if needed)
Cement for Trickle Channel (if needed)
Outlet riser pipe
Trash Rack (if needed)
Cement or trash rack for emergency outlet (spillway)
Rocks or other soil stabilization materials (if needed)
Plants or seeds